Editor’s note: Saturday, the APBA HAPO Gold Cup Heat 1A takes place on the Columbia River. At the same time, the Tri-City Water Follies is celebrating its 50th year of racing unlimited hydroplanes. So the Herald will take a look at past stories leading up to the Gold Cup. Here’s No. 50:
July 30, 1989: The day the turbines died.
Longtime race fans still like to hear that roar from a piston-powered unlimited hydroplane on the river.
For the first time in six years, with the U-3 Griggs presents Miss Ace Hardware racing, they’ll get to hear that sound again.
Here is a story I wrote in 2009, for the 20th anniversary of the last win by a piston-powered boat on the Columbia River, with some edits:
Witnesses say they were stunned by seeing so many grown men with tears in their eyes that day, cheering and crying for boat owners Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr.
Crying for driver Mitch Evans. For crew member Rick Bowles.
For the underdogs, who couldn’t even find a sponsor for that weekend.
Steve David was there, too, driving the Pietro’s Pizza.
“It was classic,” he said. “I think everybody has been an underdog at one time in their life, and they can identify with that.”
July 30, 1989: It was nearly 20 years ago that the U-3 Cooper’s Express, a piston-powered boat, outlasted the field to win the Columbia Cup — the last time a non-turbine boat won the Tri-Cities race.
Dave Villwock was there, too, as the crew chief of the Miss Circus Circus.
“We had been knocked out of the race earlier in the day when our rudder broke,” Villwock said. “We were sitting in our lounge chairs next to our boat and cheering them on.”
Evans, who drove the U-3 Cooper’s Express, remembered the day vividly.
“Coming in here, this was a new boat, and it didn’t have much time on the water,” Evans said. “We thought this thing moved pretty good. As the day wore on, we hooked up in a couple of battles.”
But no one gave the team much thought.
Yes, it was popular, because it gave the sport the nostalgic loud sound of pistons rather than that whiny turbine whir.
Cooper’s wasn’t even considered the best of the piston boats. But fans roared their approval every time Evans drove by them. These turbine boats were so much faster now, and everyone knew then that they were the wave of the future.
Just not on this day.
It was the day the pistons fought back. Of the seven boats in the final, five were piston-powered.
Chip Hanauer and his Circus Circus turbine boat were drydocked because of the rudder problem. Scott Pierce and the Mr. Pringles turbine also were done when he nearly flipped the boat and injured his knee.
A third- and a fourth-place finish were just enough to get Cooper’s into the final.
Then the final was delayed when Larry Lauterbach shut his Winston Eagle boat down at the starting line when it caught on fire. Another turbine out.
Then George Woods Jr. in the Oh Boy! Oberto and Ron Snyder in the Miss Tri-Cities — two other piston boats — shut down during the final.
David was too far back in the Pietro’s — another piston boat — to be a factor.
That left the favorite, Miss Budweiser (turbine), the Miss Madison Mazda (piston) and Cooper’s.
Tom D’Eath was driving the Bud and had the lead well in hand. But Mike Hanson, in the Madison, was hard on his heels with Evans close behind him.
D’Eath thought he had won. But on the fourth lap, he came out too far in a turn and washed down Hanson, who lost power.
D’Eath was penalized a lap. But Evans and the Coopers didn’t know it because they didn’t have radios then.
Evans, however, thought something might be up.
“I noticed they didn’t give Tommy the checkered flag,” Evans said. “I didn’t know we’d won until I got to the dock. All of these people were on the dock. Chip was going nuts.”
Hanauer went crazy. He sprinted over to the Cooper’s team members and told them they had won.
“What did we win?” Bowles asked.
For Evans, from Chelan, the win was huge.
“This was my hometown race here,” he said. “I had my family here. Aunts. Uncles. Friends from Chelan.”
Including Johnny Walcker, who was a guest that day but a few years later became a crew member.
“It was a big deal in Chelan,” said Walcker, who grew up in that town with Evans and Bowles. “Rick and Mitch had been trying to win a race for so long. Nobody ever thought that a piston boat would win again. They thought that piston boats were obsolete.”
Everybody wanted to help Cooper’s Express back then, including Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little.
“Bernie Little was always good to us,” Cooper said. “Bernie was the one who made it possible to allow us to build the boat by using his molds. He allowed his people to work with us on the boat.”
That last boat won three races in 2003, including the Gold Cup. A win like that takes some of the luster off the 1989 Tri-Cities win.
“It wasn’t as big as the Gold Cup,” Evans said. “But it’s a real close second.”
“I remember that everyone was more excited than we were (in Tri-Cities),” he said. “We were more stunned. That was like the Gold Cup win. We were numb because we never thought that we could win it. We were three-quarters of the way back from Detroit to Evansville, with the Gold Cup in the truck with us, when it hit us.”
But everyone still appreciates that 1989 victory on the Columbia.
“The best line I ever heard in racing came from Ed Cooper Sr.,” Hanauer said. “It was at the awards banquet later that night at the Red Lion in Pasco.”
The crowd got quiet as the Cooper’s team went up to the podium last. Cooper Sr. — now deceased — stepped to the microphone, and the crowd fell silent.
As Hanauer tells it, Cooper said: “For the last few years, Bernie Little would put his arm around me after the race and say, ‘Ed, there’s no shame in losing to the Budweiser.’ Well, Bernie, there’s no shame in losing to the Cooper’s Express.”
The crowd roared, clapping and giving him a standing ovation.
“Even Bernie did,” Hanauer said.